Sustainable economic growth: Integrating environmental and social protection

Economic development projects are often pursued for the generation of income, employment, and the improvement of living standards. When pursued at the expense of social and environmental interests and sustainability, it raises the question of what kind of development is taking place and for who the state is pursuing such policies. This blog highlights environmental protection in the context of the neoliberal economic development framework in India. Social protection policies and programmes have the potential to offer an approach that reconciles environmental and social interests with economic development.

Environmental protection versus economic growth

The development-environment debate is the outcome of different value systems by which the environment has been conceptualised in developing and developed countries. This debate first emerged in the United Nations in 1972. This period saw immense environmental destruction in the form of ozone layer depletion, high greenhouse gas emissions, rising sea levels, and the threat of extinction of several animal and plant species.

The main reason for this destruction was the aggressive pursuit of economic growth and industrialisation by developed countries. Since the concept of the protection of the environment has been interpreted differently by developing and the developed countries, implementation of related laws and regulations has also been varied.

The birth of neo-liberal India

Economic development in most developing countries over the past two decades (specifically since the 1970s) has been guided by a neo liberal economic agenda. India is no exception. The state-led import substitution industrialisation model of the 1980s gave way to market-led export-oriented strategies. In India, this was due to the inability of the state to introduce institutional changes and adopt interventions necessary for successful import-substituting industrialisation (Chandrashekhar, 2010).

After independence, India adopted a mixed economy model involving high state intervention and attempted to influence the pace and pattern of industrialisation. Prime Minister Nehru stressed the importance of maintaining national sovereignty by discouraging foreign investors and expressing export pessimism (Kohli, 2003). Under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, economic development moved further left, and the gap between the state’s industrial developmental capacities and economic goals widened.

Structural adjustment

The late 1980s saw liberalisation of the domestic economy from state control following a balance of payment crisis. To overcome this crisis, India borrowed money from the World Bank. These loans came with conditionality that India had to implement a structural adjustment programme – that is, adopt neoliberal economic policies. International pressures in the 1990’s saw the removal of administrative controls, a strictly limited role for public investment, the privatisation of publicly-owned assets, the easing of capital controls, and domestic financial liberalisation (Chandrashekhar, 2010).

The ethical and environmental consequences of neo-liberal globalisation

Neo-liberal globalisation is concerned with the removal of barriers to the movement of capital, to enable trans-national corporations to operate without government interference or regulation. This results in the exploitation of cheap labour and natural resources, as well as lax environmental regulations (Kala, 2001). This framework does not include an ethical dimension to the pursuit of economic development.

The impact of this model of development on the environment has been immensely destructive globally. Indeed, the environment provides the resource base for development, however, it is how these resources are mobilised that determines whether economic development is environmentally sustainable. Laws have been formulated by the government with the purpose of recognising that the environment needs protection and non-compliance with these laws is recognised as a criminal offence.

Environmental movements

Environmental movements are emerging in India, countering the socio-ecological impacts of a narrowly conceived development agenda based on short-term criteria, involving built-in ecological destruction and economic deprivation. These movements are gaining strength among the middle-class. They are akin to the growing anti-capitalist movements in developed countries.

The biggest environmental movement to emerge is Narmada Bachao Andolan, involving the struggle of the mostly indigenous people of the Narmada Valley against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSD) and other proposed dams in the region. It will see hundreds of villages and thousands of people uprooted due to submergence of their land.

A further example is the Sethusamundram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP), which aims to create a shipping route in the shallow straits between India and Sri Lanka. The project involves digging a long, deep-water channel linking the shallow Palk Strait with the Gulf of Mannar. Itis predicted to impact twenty-one national marine parks in the region as well as adversely affect the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen. The dumping of sand in the Gulf of Mannar will not only disturb the ecological balance of the area but may result in increased vulnerability to tsunamis.

Integrating environmental and social protection

The Government of India has taken several social protection measures, which have turned out to be environmentally beneficial as well. For example, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). This is India’s flagship scheme for providing large-scale employment for the rural population. The programme began in 2006 and guarantees a secure livelihood for up to 50 million families of underemployed agricultural workers by providing them with a basic income. The major aim of MGNREGA is to protect natural resources which, in the long term, this will secure livelihoods for rural people, protecting them against the severe consequences of climate change.

The Government of India initiated Swacch Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission) in 2014 to address the challenges of water, sanitation, and hygiene by 2019. The objectives of the campaign include the elimination of open defection, conversion of insanitary toilets to pour flush toilets, the eradication of manual scavenging, and above all, to bring about a behavioural change in people regarding healthy sanitation practices and to ensure public participation in achieving these objectives. In a bid to invite corporate funds, the government had also decided that corporate contributions towards this scheme will now be counted as Corporate Social Responsibility spending.


Thus, India is making an effort to incorporate protection of the environment within social protection policies. A major challenge in India is that environmental protection is seen as an elitist issue that does not concern the majority of the population. The large population of rural poor seeks development that generates economic prosperity and employment as the top priority. However, climate change and deforestation have the greatest impact on the lives of poor, rural farmers and fishermen.

What’s more, it is only when pressure is exerted by international actors that the issue of conserving and preserving the environment manages to get attention. This is inspite of the fact that developing countries have to deal with natural environmental problems like drought, desertification, famines and water borne diseases which gravely materially affect their development. There is an urgency to garner support from international donors for programmes and policies that incorporate an environmental protection dimension into social protection. This would support sustainable economic development that protects the environment while generating inclusive growth, particularly among India’s rural poor.

To Conclude

The Indian economy has grown at a very fast pace, especially in the last two decades. Although this has put India in the category of one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and has improved the standard of living for many, it has also put severe constraints on the natural resources of the country. Despite policies and legislation being implemented by the government, the conditions of the environment, particularly the forests, has kept deteriorating. There is a serious lack of political will among the government and the people to protect the environment. By reconciling the protection of the environment with social protection, there exists the potential to realise environmentally sustainable, and socially inclusive, economic growth.



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